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NHL Team Previews: Examining past, present, future

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Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!

2017-18 REVIEW
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks 
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

UNDER PRESSURE
Jake Allen
Mike Babcock
Jim Benning
Bruce Boudreau
Scott Darling
Pierre Dorion
John Gibson
Connor Hellebuyck
Mike Hoffman

Carter Hutton
Jack Johnson
Evander Kane

Jarmo Kekalainen
Ilya Kovalchuk
Dylan Larkin
Robin Lehner
Nathan MacKinnon
Joel Quenneville
Carey Price
Antti Raanta
Tuukka Rask
Todd Reirden
Pekka Rinne
Cory Schneider
Tyler Seguin
Kevin Shattenkirk
Cam Talbot
Tomas Tatar
Brad Treliving
James van Riemsdyk
Steve Yzerman

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BUILDING OFF A BREAKTHROUGH
Mathew Barzal
Brock Boeser
Pavel Buchnevich
Thomas Chabot
Kyle Connor
Evgenii Dadonov

Alex DeBrincat
Jake DeBrusk
Travis Dermott
Pierre-Luc Dubois
Matt Dumba

Vince Dunn
Radek Faksa
Kevin Fiala

Brendan Gallagher
Noah Hanifin
Nico Hischier
William Karlsson
Ondrej Kase
Clayton Keller
Adrian Kempe
Travis Konecny
Anthony Mantha
Timo Meier
Darnell Nurse
Jamie Oleksiak
Brayden Point
Mikko Rantanen
Sam Reinhart
Teuvo Teravainen
Tom Wilson

THREE QUESTIONS
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

MORE:
Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?
Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar
Back issue makes Henrik Zetterberg’s future ‘real unknown’
Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL
Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays
Rangers could once again be active in trade market
Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?
Sabres’ Eichel focuses on keeping fiery emotions in check
• Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Under Pressure: Connor Hellebuyck

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.

The Winnipeg Jets probably should have made the playoffs more than they have over the past eight years, and they probably should have had more success once they got there. The biggest thing holding the organization back has always — always! — been goaltending. They probably stuck with Ondrej Pavelec for too long, and when they didn’t they were never able find a suitable replacement to challenge him for playing time or to take the job and run with it.

They finally found someone to do it this past season when Connor Hellebuyck put together one of the finest seasons in NHL history for an American-born goalie. He finished with the league lead in wins (44), recorded six shutouts, owned a .924 save percentage, did all of that over a league-high 67 regular season appearances, and earned himself a second-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting behind only Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.

His development was probably the single biggest reason the team took the massive step forward it did and reached the Western Conference Final. Remember, the Jets were the sixth highest scoring team in the league the year before and allowed an almost identical number of shots on goal. Despite that they still missed the playoffs by seven points and finished 27th in the league in goals against, mostly because nobody in their net could stop the puck with any regularity.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

Hellebuyck changed that this past season (helping the Jets improve by 27 points in the standings and climb to fifth in the league in goals against) and carried that regular season performance over to the playoffs.

So why is he the one under pressure in Winnipeg this season?

For starters, if the Jets are going to make another deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs he is going to have to play a significant role in it and probably come close to matching what he did a year ago. No team in the NHL knows how much a poor goaltending performance can sink the entire team the way the Jets do, and even with their dynamic offense they showed the previous year that they still need a strong goaltending performance to compete.

Then there is the six-year, $37 million contract extension he signed over the summer as a restricted free agent. That is a massive investment to make in a goalie (it makes him the sixth-highest paid goalie in the NHL) when we’re still not quite sure what he is as a goalie.

Projecting goalie performance from year-to-year can be a maddening task for even the best and most experienced talent evaluators, and at this point here is what we know about Hellebuyck:

  • He has been excellent at every level prior to the NHL, including the NCAA where he owned a .945 save percentage at UMass-Lowell, and the American Hockey League (better than .920 over two years).
  • His brief NHL track record includes a promising, 26-game debut during the 2015-16 season, a big regression in 2016-17 in his first year receiving the bulk of the playing time, and a great season in 2017-18.

Even with his great NCAA and AHL performance there is still some mystery here as to what he is as an NHL goalie because we have seen a little bit of everything from him in each of his first three seasons in the league.

For all of the talent the Jets have throughout their lineup (and there is a lot of it) there is probably no player on the roster that will have a bigger hand in how far they are able to go in the playoffs than their starting goalie, who also has to prove he is worth the $37 million contract he just signed.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Under Pressure: Pekka Rinne

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

It’s not every day that you read about the defending Vezina Trophy winner being under pressure heading into the hockey season, but that’s the case in Nashville with Pekka Rinne. He was brilliant during the regular season (that’s why he won the Vezina). He posted a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals-against-average and a stellar .927 save percentage in 59 games.

So, why is the 35-year-old under pressure coming into 2018-19? Let’s take a look.

FIrst, Rinne is coming off a terrible performance in the playoffs. In what should have been a great head-to-head matchup against Winnipeg, the veteran stood out because of his lackluster play.

This wasn’t his finest moment:

The Preds were expected to compete for the Stanley Cup, instead they were bounced in the second round and Rinne’s below-average play was a big reason why they didn’t get by the Jets.

“I obviously feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. “Tough. Tough to swallow. Tough to understand.

[2017-18 review]

“And obviously, you know, the biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight.”

A few weeks of poor hockey doesn’t undo everything he accomplished throughout the regular season, but it certainly puts his future in question (at least a little bit). The Predators will probably be fine whether Rinne is dominant or not. They’re blue line is stacked and they have enough quality forwards to make them one of the better teams in the NHL. Getting stellar goaltending would obviously help.

Secondly, Rinne is entering a contract year. After he makes $7 million this year, he has the potential to become an unrestricted free agent. And it’s not like they don’t have someone that could potentially replace him. Juuse Saros has been terrific in limited duty.

The 23-year-old will be entering his third year as an NHL. In 26 games last season, he posted an 11-5-7 record with a 2.45 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage. He’s been solid. We don’t know how he’ll respond to potentially being a number one goalie (we’re not even there yet), but the Preds would be wise to give him a heavier workload in 2018-19 so they can find out what he’s capable of doing.

They also signed Saros to a three-year, $4.5 million contract extension, which means he’ll be on a very reasonable contract for the foreseeable future.

If he continues to play as well as he has and they increase his number of appearances, he could be pushing Rinne out the door sooner than later. Again, we’re a far cry from that actually happening, but it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Starting next season, the Predators will have over $25 million committed to seven defensemen, which means they might opt to spend less money between the pipes. So, the success of the team probably won’t depend on Rinne, but the pressure on his shoulders stems from the fact that he could be on his way out the door next summer.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s Nashville Predators day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

2017-18:

53-18-11, 117 pts. (1st Central Division; 1st Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-3 vs. the Winnipeg Jets, second round

IN:

Dan Hamhuis
Zac Rinaldo
Connor Brickley

OUT:

Mike Fisher
Alexei Emelin

RE-SIGNED

Ryan Ellis
Juuse Saros
Mikka Salomaki
Ryan Hartman

It was supposed to be their year.

A year removed from the Stanley Cup Final. An intact team from the previous year that had a wealth of playoff experience under their belt, one of the best defensive cores in the league and one the NHL’s best goalies.

And by all accounts, the Predators lived up to their expectations in during the regular season with the top record in all of the NHL and the Presidents’ Trophy to show for it.

But that all came crashing down in the second round against the Winnipeg Jets.  The Predators were stretched to the limit against the speedy Jets. They forced a Game 7 at home, but couldn’t repeat the magic they had shown the year before.

The loss rendered the Predators’ season an abject failure. A team oozing with talent managed to shoulder the expectations that were levied upon them, by outsides sources, and their own lofty standards given their makeup.

Nashville showed just how difficult it is to get back to the Cup Final. And how being the best team in the regular season hardly translates to being the best team in the postseason. Their regular season showing was a bit of a foregone conclusion. Their playoff run was not.

Now, the Predators press on with, once again, largely the same squad.

They added some talent to the back end in Dan Hamhuis, who replaces Alexei Emelin, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy, but struggled in the playoffs, will give it another go. And the team locked up the future heir to Rinne’s throne — Juuse Saros — in case there’s a big regression in the elder’s game.

And we’re not forgetting that Ryan Ellis is going to be on that back end for the next eight years.

This season should see the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen after he completed the world hockey hat trick last season, playing in the world juniors, the world hockey championships and the Olympic Games.

Make no mistake: The Predators are primed for another run. They’ve suffered defeat in the 11th hour now, and also learned what it feels like not to live up to expectation.

The question now is, can they add those two negatives together and get a positive: a Stanley Cup banner.

Prospect Pool:

• Eeli Tolvanen, RW, 19, Jokerit (KHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Tolvanen looked the part in the KHL this past season, scoring 19 times and adding 17 assists in 49 games as a rookie. He was named the KHL’s player of the week six times, its player of the month twice and attended the KHL All-Star Game, along with stints with Finland at the junior, senior and Olympic levels throughout the season. He’s a gifted skater, a saavy sniper and still can be disciplined defensively. The Predators have a budding superstar in Tolvanen.

• Dante Fabbro, D, 20, Boston University (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

Fabbro will head back to Boston University for his junior season after putting up nine goals and 29 points in his freshman year. Fabbro helped Canada win gold at the world juniors and the Preds felt he was ready to make the jump to the pro game, but Fabbro decided another year in college was worth it.

“We feel that he’s ready to play pro hockey,” said Predators assistant general manager and director of scouting Jeff Kealty. “That’s a personal decision on his end. On our end of things, we feel that he’s ready to be a pro hockey player.”

Preds fans will be worried they have another Jimmy Vesey on their hands. That wound still stings. That said, Fabbro progressed well in his first season in Boston and another year there isn’t a bad thing. There’s still time for him to move to the AHL next season, or perhaps right into an NHL role.

• Emil Pettersson, C, 24, Milwaukee Admiral (AHL) – 2013 sixth-round pick

Pettersson’s stock took a nice bump due to a solid first season in the American Hockey League, with 13 goals and 33 assists in 72 games, and the fact that Nashville dealt prospect Vladislav Kamenev to the Colorado Avalanche in the trade that brought them Kyle Turris last November. Another good showing in Milwaukee could offer him some opportunities with the big club this season. Nashville has a great spine at center, so breaking into it will require an injury or an outstanding performance during training camp.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck